Charles Bowman, acting health officer at the University of Illinois, looked out over the 336 hospital cots set up in an ice rink in anticipation of a rush of flu patients.

Charles Bowman, acting health officer at the University of Illinois, looked out over the 336 hospital cots set up in an ice rink in anticipation of a rush of flu patients.

The pattern of Influenza Outbreak of 1957 is sickeningly similar to COVID-19. A new and deadly strain of flu emerges in Asia, then spreads across the world and comes to the United States. A pandemic is declared. In 1957 the new virus was first reported in Singapore, in February of that year, and then worked its way to Hong Kong. In June the disease had made its way to America.

Patients were often able to pinpoint the start of Asian flu (that’s what it was named) to the very minute with wobbly legs and a chill followed by prostration, sore throats, running nose, and coughs; together with achy limbs (adults), head (children), and a high fever following. Young children, particularly boys, suffered nose bleeds. Symptoms were mostly mild and patients usually recovered after a period in bed with simple anti-fevers measures. There were complications in 3% of cases with 0.3% mortality. Pneumonia and bronchitis accounted for 50% of these.

Life magazine in a 1957 issue declared that “the government has launched the fastest medical mobilization ever attempted against an epidemic disease,” and the race for the cure began that April 1957, when forward-looking researchers from Walter Reed first began to work on developing a vaccine. The first of the photos shown here, documented the fascinating process by which the vaccine was created, with the isolated virus being injected into an egg. After the virus multiplied inside the shell, the embryonic fluid was drawn out, the virus was killed, and the treated fluid was used as the vaccine.

The first batches of the vaccine were released while the weather was still warm, in late August and early September. The vaccine was produced quickly, but not enough to cover the entire population, and nor was it 100 percent effective. Unlike with COVID-19, there was no mass quarantine or sheltering in place. As kids headed back to school, the number of flu patients began to multiply. In the November of that year, Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney predicted that “the epidemic will get worse in the next six weeks, and then decrease.”

Burney was correct, to a point. While this flu seemed to abate after Thanksgiving, it proved resurgent, and cases spiked again in early 1958. By the end, according to CDC statistics, the pandemic was tied to 110,000 deaths in the United States, and 1.1 million around the world.

Flu research was conducted at Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

Flu research was conducted at Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

Dr. Maurice Hillman of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research acquired flu specimens from Japan on April 18, before anyone in the U.S. was infected, and by May 18, his team had the virus isolated. He then gave the virus to six drug firms to develop a vaccine.

Dr. Maurice Hillman of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research acquired flu specimens from Japan on April 18, before anyone in the U.S. was infected, and by May 18, his team had the virus isolated. He then gave the virus to six drug firms to develop a vaccine.

Dr. Maurice Hilleman, pictured center, talking with his research team as they study the flu virus in a lab at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Springs, Maryland, 1957.

Dr. Maurice Hilleman, pictured center, talking with his research team as they study the flu virus in a lab at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Springs, Maryland, 1957.

Creating the flu vaccine involved injecting the virus into eggs, where it multiplied. The virus-laden embryonic fluid was then siphoned out, and the virus was killed. That purified fluid became the vaccine. In this photo Jeff Cesarone at the Merck Sharp and Dohme plant in West Point, Pa., explained the process.

Creating the flu vaccine involved injecting the virus into eggs, where it multiplied. The virus-laden embryonic fluid was then siphoned out, and the virus was killed. That purified fluid became the vaccine. In this photo Jeff Cesarone at the Merck Sharp and Dohme plant in West Point, Pa., explained the process.

Researchers study the flu virus in a lab at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, 1957.

Researchers study the flu virus in a lab at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, 1957.

The production of the flu vaccine.

The production of the flu vaccine.

The production of the flu vaccine.

The production of the flu vaccine.

Crates of flu vaccine were rushed by helicopter from Cyanamid’s Lederle Labs to New York.

Crates of flu vaccine were rushed by helicopter from Cyanamid’s Lederle Labs to New York.

Surgeon General Dr. Leroy E. Burney (center) spoke during the influenza epidemic.

Surgeon General Dr. Leroy E. Burney (center) spoke during the influenza epidemic.

In October 1957 the flu landed at the Dixon State School in Illinois, which worked with children who were intellectually disabled.

In October 1957 the flu landed at the Dixon State School in Illinois, which worked with children who were intellectually disabled.

Doctors treated influenza patients at the Dixon State School.

Doctors treated influenza patients at the Dixon State School.

This sign announced restrictions to visitors at the Dixon State School.

This sign announced restrictions to visitors at the Dixon State School.

(Photo credit: Francis Miller / The LIFE Picture Collection).